Paints Airbrushes Explained

Since there seems to be some confusion about how airbrushes and paints are used and interact with one another, lets open the floor to a productive conversation and try to clear the air.

First and foremost, we need to explain paints, how they’re made and how they work.


Opaque paints are made with colored pigments. These pigments, when sprayed cover the surface of what your painting creating the colors you see. Spray enough of them, and they will eventually cover up whatever you're spraying them on. Some paints have a finer grade of pigments than others ... the larger the pigments, the more you're likely to get build up on your airbrushes,the finer the pigments, the easier they'll flow through the airbrush, and the smoother (read less grainy) the paint coat will end up on your model.


Transparent paints (or inks) are made with colored dyes. They contain no pigments, so while they will change the look of what they're being sprayed on, they will never "cover" it up whatever is underneath them.


Semi-Transparent paints are basically opaque paints with more carrier. While they give the illusion of transparency, there not true transparents, and if you spray enough of them, they will eventually cover whatever your spraying them on. The only difference is the opacity takes a longer time to build up, as you build up the layers of pigments.

Now that we've got that out of the way, lets clear up a few common misconceptions, about paints.

Contrary to popular belief, you CANNOT make transparent paint from opaques. All you're doing by adding more carrier is creating Semi-Transparent paints. Pigments are pigments, they don't decompose or dissolve simply because you add more carrier, they just spread out more, but as previously discussed, if you build up enough of them, they will become opaque on the surface of your model.

NO PAINT on the market is ever 100% airbrush ready, not even ours, anyone that tells you otherwise is lying to you.

Paints and airbrushes react and can be affected by even the simplest of atmospheric conditions, everything from room temperature to ambient humidity can affect them. So, you have to take the environmental conditions in which you’re painting into consideration and adjust accordingly. Of course, some paints and airbrushes will need less adjusting/prepwork than others.

Next, lets discuss airbrushes

Airbrushes come in all makes, models and price ranges. Some folks have preferences to brands, but that’s something that’s extremely subjective. I’ve had people that swear by one brush (or brand) in particular, and others curse the same ones. I myself have brushes that I can’t make work for me to save my life, but have seen others create incredible works with the same exact brush, and vice versa.

Now with that aside, all airbrushes (like cars, planes, trains, computers or TV’s) do the exact same thing. They push dry air and paint through a very small hole at a small target.

Given that you’re pushing a wet medium, through such a small orifice, with extremely dry air, there is going to be clogging, as paint builds op on your brush tip, these are commonly known/refered to as "boogers". You can’t avoid them, they happen to everyone, it’s simply the nature of the beast, o if you're not prepared to deal them, I suggest finding another medium.

There are however some things which you can do to help alleviate or lesson the amount of "boogers" from forming on your brushes.

First and foremost, before you start painting, dip the tip of the needle into some Retarder. retarders a chemical additive that (simply put0 slows down the drying process and keeps paint wet longer. Also, try
brushing some on to the outer tip of your brush, and spray a drop or two through the brush before you start painting. This will slow down (NOTE: SLOW DOWN, NOT STOP) the drying process, and give you more time to work with your airbrush. You can repeat the process a few times between color changes.

Another common problem is that most folks don’t “end with air”. This means that most painters simply release the trigger, stopping the flow of both paint and air, which ends up leaving paint in the nozzle chamber which builds with time. As the paint slowly dries and builds up … BINGO … clog city. So always spray out air at the end if your color use, and spray some diluted brush cleaner, along with a dry or two of Retarder through your brush between color changes.

Another TIP … NEVER leave your needle and nozzle in contact after you’ve finished painting. As soon as you’re done, spray cleaner through your brush, and pull back the needle just a bit, making sure it’s not in contact with the nozzle, when you’re done painting for the day. The reason for this, is you can never be sure that all the paint has been sprayed out of the chamber. Paint can dry and bond with both the needle and the nozzle, so the next time you go to paint, you can tear the nozzle tip pulling the needle back without even noticing. Keep in mind some of these tips are thinner than paper, and it takes little pressure (in either direction) to crack or break them.

PERSONALLY, I always end my painting days, with cleaner, a bit of retarder, and pulling the needle back a few millimeters before shutting down for the night.

Another recommendation when airbrushing, regardless of where you live, ALWAYS use a moisture trap somewhere in your set up.

Moisture traps are invaluable in preventing additional moisture from your environment (or often even created by your own compressors) from entering your system, and messing up your paints chemistry.

Now, lets talk about painting with your airbrushes.

Regardless of what paint brand or model airbrush you're using, the most important feature of your airbrush that you need to make note of the aperture.
Apertures are the opening on the tips of your airbrushes, and they come in lots of sizes, each has their own specific purpose.
For the sake of this article, I'm only going to focus on common airbrush sized apertures, and their uses.

.15 - This is a VERY fine/small aperture on any airbrush. An aperture this small is used for fine detail work, and almost always strictly for use with transparent paints and inks used for shading and countering. If you’re using a .15 with opaque paints, especially those with higher levels of pigments (especially whites and flesh tones), make sure they’re thinned to the consistency of milk, and it’s also a good idea to put them through as fine a strainer as you can find.

.20 – This one is only a bit larger than the .15, but it can make a world of difference. I still recommend the .20 for transparents and inks, but you can also use this one for lessor pigmented colors. Again, thin down whites and fleshes for use with a .20.

.30 and .40 – these are your workhorses. They’re good for just about everything, all kinds of general-purpose painting.

.50 and .60 – I use these mostly for priming and sealing, but these are also great for base coating large areas on larger kits, such as 1/4 scale and 1/1 scale.

If anyone has any questions, I’ll try to field them as best I can.

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